As a former civil servant, this year’s Conservative Party Conference was the first I have ever attended. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Soon after arriving in Birmingham it became clear to me that conference is a strange, condensed version of the hubbub of Westminster – journalists, MPs, Ministers, activists and protesters corralled into the centre of Birmingham rushing between speeches, events and hurried meetings, all the while tweeting non-stop.
Beyond the baptism of a Party Conference, I really wanted to learn more about our new Ministerial team in BEIS (the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) and where their thinking is now, after this extraordinary summer, as well as taking the opportunity to meet with other MPs and stakeholders.
What I heard from the BEIS Ministers was encouraging for renewable energy companies. Far from downgrading the ambition for low carbon, I heard Ministers who were genuinely excited about the industrial opportunities, innovation, consumer benefits and employment coming from our renewable energy businesses.
After speaking on a panel with Baroness Neville-Rolfe, it’s clear we have an Energy Minister who knows her brief and – from her background in business – understands the importance of innovation, entrepreneurship and disruptive technologies. As the Baroness said, there’s no lack of innovation in the energy market and the challenge for Government is, to an extent, making sure the market encourages and rewards those successful technologies. I shared with the Minister the experience of some of entrepreneurial RenewableUK member companies who have grown from start-ups to world-beaters or diversified into renewables and haven’t looked back.
There was endless recycling of the formula of the Conference slogan ‘a country that works for everyone’ – some were more humorous than others. It was clear, however, that for our Energy Minister ‘an energy market that works for everyone’ will be more than just a slogan. Cost is and will always be central to energy policy. The Minister is clear that subsidy should be time limited and degressive. Any interventions into the energy market that add to bills require very clear justification. All in all, I would say there were three elements that I kept hearing about – affordability, industrial contribution and innovation. I think we are well placed to make arguments on all three.
The technologies I represent will be sustainable in the long term only if we help consumers manage costs. We’re seeing incredible falls in the cost of offshore wind and onshore wind has gone even further and is now the cheapest option for new electricity in the UK. But we know that onshore wind has often been contentious. There were communities where some people felt they weren’t being listened to and developments were being imposed on them. That local anger translated into a successful campaign by backbench Conservative MPs which ultimately closed the subsidy regime to onshore wind and has given local communities control over planning for new wind developments.
Subsidies are not coming back for onshore wind. And the industry is not asking for them.
The challenge we have now is figuring out what market signals and mechanisms we have that will allow onshore to compete and consumers benefit from the cheapest source of new power. Others at Conference were talking about this too. The Taxpayers’ Alliance and Citizens Advice debated this issue and flagged the need to prioritise cost to the consumer. As I’ve argued previously the lowest cost projects where the wind resource is strongest are unlikely to be in England and that remains the case.
I am so proud to represent member companies that employ over a quarter of a million people. Given the right policy environment we can continue to see that grow - a point I made across many of the meetings I had. It was great to see our new Business and Energy Secretary Greg Clark listing clean energy as one of the UK’s industrial strengths, and we need to continue to demonstrate the role our technologies can play in contributing to the UK. Whether it is in offshore wind, where I was proud to talk about the export contracts companies as diverse as 3Sun and Hutchinson are winning contracts or the potential in our world leading wave and tidal industries. It was also reassuring to see Dr Clark talk about how different regions have different needs, given the contribution we can make to spreading development across the UK.
The MP for Wells James Heappey made an interesting argument that the heat and noise of the recent review of the Hinkley Point deal had actually helped to move the national conversation about energy onto new ground. While some of that debate was not always constructive, there is truth in Mr Heappey’s insight. For the first time I can remember, the press and the public engaged in a national conversation about the difficult choices Government have to keep the lights on for the next 5, 10, 20 and even 50 years. That conversation on the difficult choices continued in Birmingham. My counterpart at EnergyUK, Lawrence Slade, summed up the transformation of the power sector and the opportunities that are opening up when he said “with energy, we’re seeing the digitisation of the one of the last analogue industries”.
From the development of small wind, to the recent tidal energy development by Meygen, RenewableUK’s members have often led the way in technological advances. It was good to see this celebrated in the Tidal Lagoon Power fringe which also talked about the huge industrial potential from this project.
Innovation was also the watchword when it came to storage, a topic which came up across several fringes. It’s clear just how exciting an opportunity this is, and how interested Government is in it. It has been very welcome to me to see what strides my membership is making in this area.
Overall, my first visit to Conservative Party Conference was reassuring. RenewableUK’s member companies and technologies embody many of the values discussed at the Conference – entrepreneurship, risk-taking, disrupting the market for the better. Our members are delivering innovative solutions for a rapidly changing Britain and creating employment; achievements which should be at the heart of a new industrial strategy. These companies and technologies are redefining the conversation on energy and industry. From my time in Birmingham, it’s clear to me that Government is open to that new conversation.
(This blog first appeared in BusinessGreen)